The security week that was: 09/02/11 (technology's role)

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Role of technology

Here we are, a full decade after 9/11 and airport security is still in many ways a definitive question mark. Certainly security has been improved, although not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s largely been driven by policy rather than technology. In many airports, we’re still using the same equipment that we used 11 years ago. We put our bags through X-ray scanners and we walk through metal detectors. The difference now is that we have to throw out liquids, we can’t carry box cutters and we receive fairly regular pat-downs.

I remember walking around at an ASIS tradeshow a few years ago when there was a lot of excitement about new security screening technologies. I remember thinking that the old metal detector might be on its last legs with all of this new technology. I remember walking into a machine that blew puffs of air to dislodge chemical signatures of explosives. There was a piece of equipment that worked as a registration/ticket kiosk that also sampled your fingers for traces of bomb making materials and even narcotics. There were a number of body scanners, passive and active, that could do imaging through my clothes (I remember feeling pretty uncomfortable as I walked into these companies’ booths, even though they claimed the technology wasn’t turned on). Analytics vendors were sure they were going to be able to use advanced algorithms to spot body language. There was technology for determining an individual’s body temperature, and that was going to tell you who was the scared young terrorist carrying a bomb in his book bag. GE was testing its equipment in a “checkpoint of the future” at a major west coast airport, and there was a genuine sense of excitement across the detection systems part of our industry. This stuff was amazing, and our technology leaders were going to make air security checkpoints quick, painless and, best of all, even more secure.

So it’s surprising to watch many of these technologies fall off the wagon because they were too expensive to maintain or because they generated too many false alarms or because they slowed throughput too much. Gone are the puffing machines. You don’t see crowd-scanning imagers or the radiation detectors hidden in crowd guidance stanchions. What did seem to gain traction were the fixed body-scan portals, and they only really came to use recently after the threat of body-worn bombs appeared. But now, even those may be sliding off the radar. Germany has found that the scanners are generating too many false alarms, and has decided not to continue with use of the technology after conducting a test period. Italy did the same thing after being dissatisfied with tests of the technology.

But why were we surprised? Has technology ever been the “hand of God” in the security industry? The seasoned old security man knows that technology will improve incrementally. There were black-and-white cameras. Then there were cameras that could see in color. There were cameras with more pixels. HD cameras with 720p resolution appeared. Then there were the 1080p cameras. And steadily they were becoming lower light sensitive and more “dynamic.” Cameras didn’t end crime. New screening technologies didn’t rid us of terrorists. They helped. Security staffers used the equipment the right way, and improved security ... incrementally.

What’s the point, Geoff? The point comes as this: In two weeks, the team, along with editors from STE and SD&I magazines, are all going to be scanned, questioned, and patted down before we hop on planes to Orlando for the ASIS tradeshow. We’ll get to this amazing tradeshow (and it still is amazing, even if you’ve been there 7 years in a row) and be quietly stunned by the amount of technology development. Some of it will be hum-drum. There will be a section where overseas factories have copied yesterday’s technology and are selling it for pennies on the dollar. But a lot of it will be rather amazing. You’ll see 3D maps of your building with camera view overlays. There will be fences that can differentiate between the rattle of the wind and the rattle of an intruder climbing them. You’ll walk by enormous gate barriers that could stop an 18-wheeler. (Who needs that? Maybe the Illinois courthouse does; only the building’s steps saved it from a wacko who tried to crash his 18-wheeler into the facility because he was upset over his child-support arrangements.)

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